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Submitted Literature

Remember Me...

By Melvyn Bragg

Review

Melvyn Bragg’s book Remember Me... deals with Joe Richardson’s doomed relationship with a French poet, Natasha, but, as Danuta Kean writes in her interview with the author: ‘The line between Bragg’s life and the plot of Remember Me... is so thin that at times it is hard to distinguish whether he is talking about fact or fiction. Like Bragg, Joe graduates from Oxford, a grammar-school boy made good, works in the BBC and becomes a published author.  Both work on acclaimed arts documentaries and films, marry their French girlfriends and leave for other women 10 years later.  Both fail to return to their wives on the eve of their suicide, and the guilt they carry down the years is unbearable. For Bragg it unravelled into a second nervous breakdown – the first happened in his teens.’  (The Independent on Sunday 22 February 2009, p.22).   Furthermore, both women’s suicides were preceded by the suicides of their therapists – something that infuriates Bragg in that he maintains it was this that provoked the decline in the mental state of his first wife, the artist Lisa Roche.  Clearly, her suicide lies at the very heart of the novel, with a confessional tone achieved through Joe’s conversations with his daughter Marcelle – something that is mirrored in Bragg’s anxiety for approval from his own daughter, Marie-Else.  He comments: ‘“She was glad for me, that I had faced up to it.’”  When questioned, Bragg side-steps any notion of the book being cathartic, preferring and indeed labouring for a kind of redemption: ‘“Redemptive in the sense of a properly considered response and considered answer, but not in terms of absolution”.’ (Kean 2009, p.22).  Perhaps the redemption here is the gift he makes of telling the story for his daughter as does Joe in the novel. Certainly, the novel works as a kind of memorial and, as with the title for the novel, memory and the act of remembering is signalled time and time again. This is the case in the opening section of the novel where the shadow of suicide is cast early in Joe recounting his first meeting Natasha: ‘She was silhouetted against the log fire... He could not remember much of what they talked about but he always remembered not telling her, not then, that she looked like Shelley.  Even  many years later when it finally proved to be the time to tell her story, their story, to their daughter, to tell it in full as far as he could, it was this picture of her to which he returned, the silhouette, which made him want to cry out again for the violent death, the wounded life.’ (3)

It is perhaps Bragg’s sense of shame rather than guilt that stands out later in the novel when Joe confesses: ‘The heart of it is shame.  That is what he wanted to tell his daughter, but how could he convey it without running into an excess of self-reproach or falling into the arms of self-pity? ... If he told her that since her mother’s death shame had all but crushed him, had been the weight to be shifted before anything could be done, then what would that serve?  What would it mean?  That he was making excuses?  That he was apologising yet again? ... He would have had to say to her also that a life of sorts can be lived with that condition.  There can be friendships, there can be work done, there can even be spans of happiness now and then, but any swelling on the past summons up the shame and he could not leave the past alone.  He could not pass this on to her just as he could not be at any peace with her mother, not until he had served his time, the life sentence.’ (64).

This sense of unending shame fits with Bragg’s denial of absolution and suggests the limits of any personal comfort or consolation that he derives from the fiction.

As much as Remember Me is autobiographical and confessional, it offers insight into the nature and travel of depression and how this is inter-animated with the creative life.  In part it is a disquisition on creativity and madness that remains inconclusive.

Key Themes:

  • Suicidality

Significant Quotes / Pages

‘It was a brief and superficial stroke of pleasure, like a flat stone merely skimming across the surface of a lake.  Yet she was honest enough and so acutely attuned to her own depression to notice and to register this positive effect of his presence and be grateful.’ (19-20).

‘Their daughter wanted to know precisely when they had fallen in love.  Joe wanted to find a dramatic moment.  Something wild and romantic, to smile over and cherish, a gift to one who had suffered so much, a light in the dark inheritance.’ [my italics] (29)

 ‘She watched the brown and yellow leaves drop from the chestnut, lit her second cigarette of the day, took a sip of the tepid coffee, and decided what better was there to do for the next few minutes than stand and stare and let a happy boredom, a comfortable melancholy, grow into a poem.’ (140)

‘Writing was even harder: writing in her state emphasised the isolation, reached into the same depths as depression and needed support from a wholeness to which she did not have any access.’ (441)

‘“If you are happy you can’t be an artist.  All artists have to be unhappy... Disturbed might be better... or depressed, flawed in some way, or wounded.  Or all of them together, most likely.  And the greater the flaws and the deeper the wounds the better the artist.”’ (230-1). 

 ‘I think...that the roots of all creativity are so tangled and dark that any attempt to identify them, using a single method, is bound to be unsatisfactory.’ (231)

Reference: Melvyn, Bragg. 2008. Remember Me.... Sceptre, 2009

Reviewer

Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Wednesday 29th April 2009